Thursday, 3 January 2013

Greetings from the 16th century

How would you greet someone in a Sixteenth Century Venetian gaming house?

Hello! As this is the first post on my blog I thought it would be appropriate to take a look at greetings used in the 15th and 16th centuries, I've just used a modern greeting but if you were introduced to someone in 16th century England how would you greet them? What would you do? What would you say? Of course greetings would vary according to gender, class, age and how well acquainted you were but there were some features of how the English greeted each other which both shocked and delighted visitors to the country.

For example if a man of gentry class was introduced to a woman of similar standing for the first time what would be their first interaction? Today they would probably shake hands but in 16th century England they would have kissed. This would have been on the lips and in England it was seen as a perfectly acceptable, friendly way for ladies to greet their guests or acquaintances. When the Humanist Desiderius Erasmus came to England in 1499 he was delighted by the practice and wrote to his Italian friend and fellow Humanist Fausto Andrelini:

Portrait of Erasmus at work, as
opposed to enthusiastically 
kissing English ladies.
'When you arrive anywhere you are received with kisses on all sides, and when you take your leave, they speed you on your way with kisses. The kisses are renewed when you come back. When the guests come to your house, their arrival is pledged with kisses; and when they leave, kisses are shared once again. If you should happen to meet, then kisses are given profusely. In a word, wherever   you turn, the world is full of kisses.' 

However women would not greet each other in this way, instead of kissing each other on the lips they would kiss on the cheek. Men would very rarely kiss each other but would be more likely to shake hands or if they were friends they might greet each other with a hug. Henry VIII often greeted men he liked with the latter, for example the ambassador Eustace Chapuys who he would often hug and put his arm around.

To accompany the action of kissing, shaking hands or hugging English people employed a variety of phrases to use in greeting. One such phrase is almost the same as one which we still use today, the modern version being 'how do you do?' and the 16th century version being 'how do you?' Both phrases are used to inquire about someone's health, with the word 'do' being used to specifically relate to health. Since the 14th century the verb 'do' has been taken to mean 'prosper/thrive' and the earliest evidence of the phrase being used is located within the 1463 Paston Letters. The Paston Letters are the correspondence between members of the Paston family which provide some of the earliest and most significant eyewitness accounts of events in the 15th century. In one of these letters there is the phrase 'I wold ye shuld send me word howghe ye doo', which clearly demonstrates the use of the phrase. The first written example of the exact phrase 'how do you?' is provided by John Foxe in his Book of Martyrs where he writes 'God be thanked for you, how do you?'.

Other greetings used in 16th century England for someone that you were more familiar with would be 'well met' (essentially 'good to see you' or 'nice to meet you') and 'hail fellow' which to us sounds very stiff and formal but would have only been used informally as it is roughly the equivalent of saying 'hi' to a friend.

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